The other Thomas Prichard: letting go of co-incidences

I find a startling revelation about someone with my subject’s name. It’s the right time, it’s the right place, and it’s in line with certain things I know about the subject, but it’s shocking enough to entirely change the story of that person.

There are only two possibilities. This discovery is full of meaning. Or it has no meaning at all, because it’s not the right person. But if it’s not the right person, and it has no meaning at all, it feels like it should.

*

I’ve been researching Kattie’s father, Thomas Henry Prichard (1845-1907). He’s a fascinating figure, viewed next to his daughter – so very conservative, strongly opposed, for example, to a minimum wage, and a writer of modest talent compared to Kattie. He set out to make his fortune in Fiji around 1870, which was eventually where Kattie was born.

I was looking for something else about him when a “Thomas Prichard” suddenly came up in a brief discussion of the Daphne case in one book – he was the co-owner of an Australian ship which kidnapped one hundred islanders for the plantations of Fiji in 1869. The case was dismissed on a technicality, but led to new legislation specifically outlawing the practice. Was this how Prichard spent his youth? Was this one of the stories he avoided telling his daughter? It would make such a sensational story!

If it was true, which it wasn’t. The book in question led me back through so some dubious sources, the chain going back to a Pacific Island enthusiast’s website. All the best sources I could find, including contemporary newspaper reports, started it was William D. Pritchard, not a Thomas H. Prichard, who had been co-owner of that boat. Tom had nothing to do with it. It isn’t even particularly a co-incidence, although it is a sloppy mistake by the scholar.

But it still feels like it should have meaning. If it was a novel, finding out there was another character with the same name in such close proximity would mean much. Either a long lost relative in the 19th century, or a novel driven by the very randomness of the occurrence in the 1990s.

Perhaps one could write a new kind of history composed of co-incidences, near misses, and associations, a tangle of footnotes. I’m not sure what the point would be. It would really be a writer insisting, “this co-incidence is too amazing for me to have to admit it means nothing. I’m making it mean something by writing about it.”

I use this example, but it’s happening all the time, these plot developments that belong to a different story, a character not actually in my book, even if their namesake is. I have to let them go, all the co-incidences and near misses of history.

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

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